A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

by Blythe Robbins

Sixteen is a tough age to be in any era. Particularly for Gemma Doyle, a free thinking Victorian girl with supernatural powers. Sick of her stuffy life in Bombay, India, Gemma longs to enter the fashionable world of London. There’s only one thing stopping her–her mother.

In a fit of anger, Gemma yells at her mother, “I don’t care if you come home at all!” just before her mother meets with an unspeakable tragedy. Suddenly, Gemma finds her dream of leaving for England coming true in the most anguishing way: her mother dead and her father addicted to opium in his grief. For Gemma, being sixteen just went from bad to worse.

Part historical fiction, part fantasy, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. Set against the rigid social world of Victorian England, Gemma must come to terms not only with her mother’s death but also with her newfound supernatural abilities. Navigating her journey with sassy sarcasm, Gemma reveals a startlingly relatable story about the difficulties of finding the right path.

Once in England, Gemma begins her life at a finishing school called Spence. Gemma doesn’t feel like she’s living up to Spence’s school motto of “Grace, Charm, and Beauty,” and she wonders if she’ll ever manage to make friends. Despite her worries about fitting in, Gemma manages to blackmail her way into  a popular clique. These girls soon become an unlikely tribe who help Gemma discover her ties to a powerful group of sorceresses called The Order, and her ability to enter a magical world called the realms.

Gemma moves in and out of the realms with her friends, trying to understand her growing powers while making sense of her mother’s death. The realms serve as an ideal fantasyland where all the girls’ dreams come true–one longs for beauty, another strength, a third love. As they spend more time in the realms, the girls wonder if they can ever create the lives they want for themselves in the real world. For in the real world (of which the descriptions are fascinating, although too few and far between), the girls feel no control over their destinies.

While Gemma longs to explore and use her power, her understanding of her gifts stalls as her story evolves. Like any sixteen year old, Gemma struggles to make sense of the world and who she is in it. Even with supernatural abilities, Gemma struggles to confront sexual attraction, family disagreements, and friendship turmoil in and out of the realms.

The true charm of this story resides in the voice of Gemma, as her spunky, self-conscious nature allows for the telling of her fantastical story in an absorbing way.  Readers will empathize with Gemma’s journey to make the right choices, and they will laugh at her witty descriptions of daily life. In the end, readers are left hungry for more, and Bray is happy enough to feed them with her two follow up novels, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.

Blythe Robbins, a Californian living in New York City, is a geeky editor by day. At night, she can be found reading or writing YA fiction.

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